Eyes on the Pies

By Taylor Watson

There’s nothing more distinctly Utican than a good slice of tomato pie.

Photo by Taylor Watson

Photo by Taylor Watson

 

The disagreement pits me against my family time and time again. It’s three against one, so I usually lose. But even when I lose, I win. I’m talking about the great tomato pie debate, a quintessentially Utican argument.

If you attend any gathering in the city of Utica, I can almost guarantee you’ll find some tomato pie. The dish is a staple at graduation parties, tailgates, holidays, summer cookouts, road trips — you name it.

But tomato pie is not pizza, nor is it really a pie as the name might suggest. At its core, tomato pie is a focaccia-like dough with tomato sauce with a sprinkle of parmesan or romano cheese on top. It’s always rectangular. It’s always consumed at room temperature. While a few other northeastern cities may claim to have tomato pie (I’m looking at you, Philly) none are quite like the pie that Utica is so proud of.

The roots of the dish are not entirely known, but it was likely a creation born from the many Italian immigrants that settled in Utica, a city in upstate New York about 55 miles west of Syracuse. Today, the city prides itself on local Italian-American cuisine, including greens, vodka riggies, and of course, tomato pie.

The aforementioned family feud stems from the slight variations in tomato pies made by different Italian delis and restaurants.

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I prefer my tomato pie from Napoli’s Italian Bakery and Deli. It’s the pie with the most sauce, a thick crust and some parmesan sprinkled on top. The rest of my family is team Roma’s Sausage and Deli, a place known for its sweeter, herbed sauce and garlic-y, spongey crust. But no matter where we order the tomato pie from, the box always seems to arrive home with at least one square missing, a testament to the irresistible pull of tomato pie.

In the summertime, my mom makes her own version of the pie using tomatoes from our garden. She cooks the tomatoes down with olive oil and garlic until they become sauce-like. Then, she spreads the sauce onto a dough purchased from a local bakery and tops it with parmesan cheese before tossing it in the oven until the dough is golden. Her pie has a distinct tomato flavor — you can still see the tomato chunks as you bite into the crispy, juicy goodness that is a homemade tomato pie, a testament to her Italian-American roots.

I learned during my semester in Florence, Italy, that there is a large distinction between Italian cuisine and Italian-American cuisine. While related, they are by no means the same. And there was not a tomato pie to be found in Italy.

In my four years at Syracuse University, I’ve tried to bring the magic of tomato pie to those who have never heard of it. My freshman year roommate fell under the tomato pie spell and eagerly requested that I bring some back to Day Hall whenever I made the trip home to Utica. I’ve found that purposely eating a pizza-like dish at room temperature freaks people out. One roommate who shall not be named went as far to commit what would be a sin in Utica— microwaving a slice.

But there is something more satisfying about walking into one of the many Italian bakeries or restaurants in Utica
to get tomato pie for yourself. You’ll find meats and Italian packaged products lining the stores. Most of the bakeries don’t have seating, so you’ll get your dollar slice or full tomato pie to go. You can’t miss the Italian flags and signs claiming the best tomato pie, a title taken so seriously that Utica has “Tomato Pie Day” to put that claim to the test.

Don’t just take my word for it. To experience an authentic tomato pie, you’ll have to make the trip to Utica yourself. Then maybe you can help settle the debate Don’t just take my word for it. To experience an authentic tomato pie, you’ll have to make the trip to Utica yourself. Then maybe you can help settle the debate of whose tomato pie is supreme.

 

Taylor Watson ‘19 is a senior magazine student at Syracuse University.